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Original Goodness: There Is No Slippery Slope

When I was a child, my father taught me catechism. The catechism he used had been written in 1689 and, to my knowledge, had never been updated. On Wednesday afternoons when the sun coming through the big living room window made me and my younger brother warm and sleepy, my father would drill us on our catechism, asking the questions, letting us take turns reciting the answers, and then engaging in dialogue to make sure we understood what we were reciting. Even now, over twenty years later, I can still remember many of the answers I spent so many hours learning. Here are a few:

Q: What is sin?

A: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

Q: Is man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?

A: No mere man, since the Fall, is able in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but daily breaks them in thought, word, and deed.

Q: What does every sin deserve?

A: Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and in that which is to come.

I was raised in a Calvinist branch of American conservative evangelicalism, which meant that a foundational doctrine of my life was Total Depravity (the first of the Five Points of Calvinism). While this theology was designed to highlight God’s amazing grace and outrageous love in deigning to save such a miserable sinner as me, whose every impulse was evil, the side effect was that I grew up believing that people are bad inside. I was given a worldview in which human evil is barely constrained by laws and threats, and every person deserves eternal punishment based on the depravity of their core nature. It was common in my culture to hear parents commenting on the “sin nature” of their 2-year-olds when they threw temper tantrums, to hear all forms of sexual desire condemned as lust, and to be told not to trust my own thoughts, emotions, or instincts because “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.”

Even back then, this worldview didn’t sit well with me. If the Holy Spirit was the only force that could empower a desperately sinful human to act righteously, and only Christians had access to the Holy Spirit, how could that explain all the non-Christians who loved their children or were generous to the poor or worked for justice? Would a baby who died go to Hell because they hadn’t had a chance to ask God’s forgiveness for the sin nature they were born with? What about the fact that I just didn’t feel like I was inclined toward sin in every choice, or that other people just didn’t seem to be struggling not to do something bad all the time?

It was stunning to learn, as an adult, that the doctrine of Original Sin is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible, and was not a part of early Christianity.

Augustine coined the term Original Sin about four hundred years after the start of Christianity, in part because of personal issues over his high sex drive. There are branches of Christianity—most prominently, the Eastern Orthodox Church—that believe not in Original Sin, but in Original Goodness or Original Blessing. Turning the idea of a genetically (and sexually; thanks, Aquinas) transmitted sin nature on its head, Original Goodness focuses on the Imago Dei, the divine image inherent in every human, evident in our capacity for love, creativity, and sacred connection.

As an attachment-based therapist, I see the imprint of Original Goodness wired into us even before birth, in the attachment system that primes us to create powerful and affectionate bonds with those closest to us at the very start of life. We are born knowing how to love and be loved, and even painful experiences of trauma or the absence of love can only bury, not eradicate, this innate knowledge. This ability to love and be loved is part of our human heritage, eternally retrievable through experiences of emotional attunement, nurture, safety, and healing.

But I want to make this practical for us. What difference does our worldview—our belief in the goodness or badness of humanity—actually make?

I have been potty-training my toddler recently. It’s a process that involves a lot of energy and a lot of patience, helping her make the connection between the physical sensation of a full bladder and the result—urine—with enough time to make it to the potty. I’ve cleaned up a lot of accidents over the past few weeks, and done a lot of laundry. I have been—for the most part—able to tolerate the process, though, because I’ve viewed it as a developmental process. She is learning a new skill. She’s making mistakes, and that’s a normal part of learning. She’s not doing anything wrong.

Because I know that potty-training is a developmentally normal process, I am able to respond to my daughter’s accidents with grace and kindness. My belief that her accidents are morally neutral allows me to access the best parts of myself as I fetch the paper towels again or peel poop out of Paw Patrol underpants while trying not to gag.

Most of us view potty-training as developmentally normal—frustrating, yes, but morally neutral. What about temper tantrums, though? What about when our children are aggressive or even violent toward other kids? What about lying? What about whining? What about teenagers experimenting with sex and substance use, rebelling, breaking rules? What about young adults harshly criticizing us for our well-meaning efforts in raising them? Is all of this evidence that our kids are bad inside? That they are making poor choices, disobeying, being mean or irresponsible or vicious—that they are sinning?

The truth is, all of these behaviors are developmentally normal (that is, necessary for growth), which puts them in the same morally neutral category as a 2-year-old having a potty accident.

All of these behaviors—meltdowns, lying, underage drinking, breaking our hearts—are signs of normal brain development, children growing in emotional maturity and learning how to manage their bodies and choices. Some of these behaviors have heftier natural consequences than others, all of them are difficult to deal with, but none of them are a sign that anything is wrong with our children. And our ability to believe that our kids are, as Dr. Becky says, good inside—that they are “having a hard time,” rather than “giving us a hard time”—opens the door to gentle, attuned, supportive parenting, secure attachment, and safe emotional connection.

But what about you, Mom or Dad? Are you good inside?

When you lose it and yell at your child, when you dish out a punishment that is way too harsh for the infraction, when you’ve had enough and you walk out on a wailing child because you can’t handle it anymore, when you miss the context and give a consequence when what your child really needed was an advocate, when you take out your frustrating day at work on your kids when you get home… Are you bad inside? A lousy parent? Selfish, weak, or just plain mean?

Or are you still good inside?

Pause, take a deep breath, and notice what changes in your body when you choose to see yourself a good parent struggling with an overwhelming task, learning as you go, doing the best you can.

Our belief about the intrinsic goodness or badness of humanity shapes our responses to others on a daily basis, but it also forms the foundation of our relationships with ourselves.

If we believe others are good inside, our impulse when someone hurts or inconveniences us will be graciousness; in the same way, if we believe that we are good inside, our impulse when we mess up will be self-compassion. When we believe we are good inside, we are able to be friendly with ourselves, kind and forgiving, realistic in our expectations and gentle in our self-corrections. This kind of relationship with ourselves brings out the best in us in a beautiful feedback loop, strengthening over time and overflowing into our interactions with those around us.

But if the fruit of believing in our own basic goodness is so, well, good, then why do so many of us hang onto a belief in inner badness? I think it goes back to attachment, to our need to survive in difficult early caregiving environments and our deep fragility in any relationship where love, longing, or the need for nurture exists. A belief in inner badness is a way to make sense of life when people hurt us, a way to retain control and, with it, a sense of safety in an unpredictable world.

The alternative—that bad things can happen even when we don’t deserve them, that we can do everything right and still get hurt, that the people we love and need can reject us even though we’re lovable—is just too frightening and overwhelming to tolerate. It’s so much easier to believe we have done something to deserve the bad things that happen to us. This means that if we could just be better, then good things would happen—or that if bad things keep happening, then it must be because the badness is so deep inside us that we can’t fix it. As odd as it sounds to our ears, our brains actually find these beliefs more comforting than accepting the reality that pain is unpredictable and often undeserved, that hardship can occur randomly, or that life just isn’t fair.

This belief structure of inner badness is how we learn to survive as children, and it largely remains intact throughout our lives unless we do a lot of hard work to change it.

Most of us don’t do the work to change it, though, because for the most part, it keeps working for us. It protects us from the pain of rejection. It justifies our ridiculous or rigid standards for ourselves, that are often so much higher than the standards we have for any other human on the planet. It makes us feel that, if we just work hard enough, we can save our marriage, finally fix our relationship with our aging mother, raise perfect kids, make enough money, attain enough security, protect ourselves from harm. Our brain continues to find comfort in it.

But for some of us, there comes a moment when it stops making sense. For me, this began when I started learning the neuroscience of human behavior, examining developmentally normal behaviors in children and adults from a trauma-informed perspective of attachment, growth, and survival. This allowed me to start asking the question, what if I’m not bad inside? What if we’re all just doing the best we can to survive, and as soon as we can do better, we do? A little seed of compassion was planted in my heart, and as it grew, the fruit nourished all of my relationships—professionally, personally, intrapsychically, spiritually.

In my work with clients who’ve suffered complex trauma or attachment trauma, I find I’m often planting or watering this very same seed in them. There are a few exciting moments that occur in the healing process. The first is when someone is able to see themselves as good enough for love, to experience that first inner impulse of compassion rather than condemnation. Another is when cognitive flexibility allows them to accept two truths at the same time— “My trauma isn’t my fault, but my healing is my responsibility” or “My boundaries can feel mean to someone else but still be healthy for us both” or “My parent can love me as best as they can and still hurt me deeply.” My favorite moment, though, is when a client has fully accepted their own goodness, and finds that they now have enough space inside of them to accept the core (though perhaps obscured) goodness of others—even the parent who abused them, the partner who hurt them, or the person who oppressed them. This is when the math of healing becomes exponential. This is when intergenerational transformation becomes a real possibility.

This is why I love my job.

What happens to your worldview when you start to accept a belief in core goodness?

It’s a little scary—at first, and for a long time after. Religion and politics stop working the way they used to. The world gets a whole lot more complex. Forgiveness is still tough but suddenly unavoidable. It gets way harder to hate, and that feels inconvenient. You can’t hang onto comfortable biases very well anymore. There is this terrifying feeling of opening up inside, opening wider and wider and wider, until you start to worry it will never stop. Fears of some kind of slippery slope ping in your mind like red exclamation points.

But there is no slippery slope. Belief in goodness only leads to more goodness. It doesn’t make us permissive; it makes us grow, and asks for growth in others, because we start holding ourselves to a higher standard. Belief in goodness holds us to the standard of our true selves.

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